When I was at Stanford, I did my undergrad degree in Economics. For a brief time, I considered majoring in Psychology and took a number of classes in that field.
During this time, I was always puzzled by an inherent conflict between the fields of economics and psychology.
Economics presumes “man” (and woman) is rational. Psychology presumes he is irrational.
At the time, I could never figure out which premise was correct.
It was only a decade later that I finally figured out the answer...
ALL people are irrational at least some of the time... especially in situations with high uncertainty (where logic has no data to work with), high emotional charge (that overwhelm one’s ability to reason logically), or high perceived stakes (e.g., a once in a lifetime opportunity with no chance for a 2nd attempt).
Consultants value logic, facts, and analysis above all else. Emotions are generally frowned upon and looked down upon as something that influences clients, but not the emotionally stoic management consultant.
If you were to call a McKinsey consultant illogical, that would be considered an epic insult.
I find the disdain for irrationality (i.e., being emotional) in management consulting to be the industry’s weakness.
Consultants will prize the logically correct recommendation without much consideration of the emotional ramifications of their recommendations on the client and the client’s organization.
This is the number one reason why logically correct strategic plans written by MBB consultants often do not get implemented by the “irrational” client (aka human being).
In a moment, I’ll share with you one tip for how to approach any kind of situation where people are involved.
Before I do, let me introduce a concept that comes from the software engineering world. It’s called meta data. Meta data is secondary data that describes primary data.
For example, if you take a photo on your smart phone, the actual image is “the data.” The time stamp, GPS coordinates, and the file size of the photo would be the meta data.
Another example of meta data comes from Hollywood screenwriting. In a script, the words the actor is supposed to say is called the text. How the actor is supposed to say the words and the meaning the actor gives to the words is called the subtext.
For example, in a stereotypical example, girl and boy fall in love. Boy makes mistake. Girl is unhappy. Boy asks, “Is everything okay?”
Girl says, “Everything is FINE.”
Now if you take the words literally, there is no problem. He asks if there is a problem. She says everything is okay. End of story.
Yet most of us realize that when a woman stereotypically says, “FINE” (depending on how she says it), she means the exact opposite. (At least this is what Hollywood has taught us.)
In this case, the literal words are the data (the text). The intention behind the words is the meta data (the subtext).
Two years ago, I took a screenwriting class from legendary screenwriting teacher Robert McKee. At the most recent Oscar nominations, his former students received 20 (yes, twenty) Oscar nominations. He’s a legend in Hollywood.
He said if your actors mean exactly what they say (that is the text = subtext, or the data = meta data) that’s known as a sh*tty (e.g., lousy) script.
Because it’s boring.
There is no drama. There is no tension. It’s boring.
I believe the inverse is often true.
If there is drama, tension, and intensity in a real life situation, often the data and meta data are NOT the same. In such a real life situation, what is being said and what is being MEANT are different.
So what does this mean for you?
In a situation with a client, boss, or significant other, if you’re noticing a lot of drama, that’s a sign to look at the situation not from a data standpoint, but from a meta data standpoint.
There is the literal conversation that’s taking place (the words), and there’s the emotional conversation that’s taking place silently (the feelings and emotions being exchanged).
The key is to know when the conversation is not about the literal meaning of the words being exchanged, but rather about the SYMBOLIC meaning the words silently represent to one or both people.
Communication is strained when one person is being literal and the other person is being symbolic. Communication can be downright disastrous when both people are having a conversation about their individual symbolic representations of the literal words being exchanged.
So what should you do about it?
While the complete answer could easily take an entire day to explain and teach, I will pass along one actionable tip for you.
When a conversation is getting dramatic and intense, and you suspect the conversation is no longer about the literal words being exchanged, then do the following:
For example, let's go back to my romantic comedy example:
Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Boy makes mistake. Girl is unhappy. Boy says, “Is everything ok?” Girl says, “Everything is FINE.”
Using this tip, the boy now does the following...
1) Boy notices girl says “everything is okay,” but girl's curt tone of voice, folded arms, glaring eye contact seems incongruent with the literal words.
2) Boy thinks to himself, "Hey, we have a possible meta data or subtext situation here."
3) Boy says to girl, “When you say FINE, do you mean everything is okay, or do you mean everything is NOT okay?”
Notice how boy VERIFIES INTENT with girl who said everything is “FINE.”
This mechanism explicitly transitions a conversation so that text and subtext are one and the same... that data and meta data are basically identical.
(I know I’m not using data and meta data in its technically most accurate way, but hopefully I’ve made my point.)
This plays out differently depending on context, situation and the people involved. In a budget meeting or strategic planning executive team review meeting, when one person says, “The proposal seems risky,” what exactly do they really mean?
Does she mean the plan literally seems risky? Or does she mean she’s concerned that her department’s budget would be reduced as a consequence of the proposal? Or does she really mean she’s afraid she would lose power, influence and career security if the new proposal was adopted?
In most circumstances, you want to verify intent and make explicit what everyone is meaning — not just what they are saying.
However, sometimes it’s too scary to say out loud what one really means. Maybe the concern is not socially acceptable.
For example, if you object to a strategic plan, it’s not a socially acceptable excuse to say you are concerned about your personal job security. In this kind of situation, even if you verify intent, the other person will deny their actual concern — especially if the conversation takes place in public amongst peers.
In a personal relationship such as between two friends, parent-child, or two spouses, maybe the argument of one person canceling plans on another isn’t a concern about the cancelation. Maybe it’s the person who got canceled on last minute feeling they aren’t important to the other person.
The single best way to emotionally deescalate a situation is to take the symbolic conversation, verify intent, and turn the conversation into a literal one instead.
The model above skews towards Western culture (but even in Western culture, really good communication that’s focused on the literal doesn’t happen all that often).
Some cultures do not favor literal conversations. In these cultures, you may need to communicate entirely at the level of symbolism.
In those cases, you need to add extra steps to see the literal words being said, interpret the symbolism the other person is likely to be perceiving, figure out how you want to respond literally, then convert your literal intent into a more culturally acceptable symbolic representation of what you mean.
Regardless of what culture you live or work within, the tool of “verifying intent” can be a useful one to have in your intellectual “tool bag.”
It’s a great tool for excellent (aka clear) communication with others.
The only “downside” is that your life might then become devoid of drama, chaos and unnecessary stress.
I hope you find this advanced consulting skill useful in your career and in your personal life.
If so, you may wish to consider my Ultimate Consultant Toolkit. It’s a 14-hour audio lecture series where I teach some of the advanced skills (like the one described above) that MBB consultants use on the job.
If you’re seeking to get ahead working in industry, the toolkit is one way to learn MBB-caliber professional skills without having to actually work at MBB. I highly recommend it. To learn more click here: Ultimate Consultant Toolkit